Here is a convo with Daisy Goodwin, author of THE FORTUNE HUNTER! I hope you’ve been enjoying the features about THE FORTUNE HUNTER this week. And, remember- if you are dying to get a copy of THE FORTUNE HUNTER- you can win 2 at Ivory Owl Reviews!
A Conversation with Daisy Goodwin, author of The Fortune Hunter…
Though royalty is always a favorite, Elizabeth of Austria is a relative unknown in historical fiction; there are few books in which she figures. How did you come to choose her as a subject for your novel?
I was given a jigsaw featuring the famous Winterhalter portrait of Elizabeth when I was a child and I suppose the image must have imprinted itself on my imagination, because thirty years later when I started casting around for a new subject for a novel she came in to my head. When I started to read about her, there is an excellent biography by Bridget Hamann, I realized what a fascinating character she was.
Can you give a brief biographical sketch of the historical Elizabeth? What did you find as her sympathetic qualities (and those that are less so)?
Elizabeth was the third daughter of minor Bavarian royalty. Her maternal aunt was the Emperor’s mother, so she and her husband were first cousins (quite common then). They married when she was sixteen and had four children together – although their first daughter Sophie died in childhood. Elizabeth or Sisi, as she was known by her family, had had quite an informal upbringing, so she was horrified by the rituals of the Hapsburg court with its obsession with pedigree and precedence. She resented the control that her mother in law Sophie had over Franz Joseph and the way that she took over the upbringing of her grandchildren. After falling ill and spending a year recuperating abroad, Sisi came back and gave her husband an ultimatum – he had to choose between her and his mother.
As she became more powerful at court, Sisi developed her own cult of beauty – rather like Princess Diana her looks were her secret weapon. But her image came at a price, not only did it take her two hours every morning to have her hair done, but it meant that she found the ageing process very painful. She refused to sit for photographs from the age of thirty two, and she always carried a leather fan with her to prevent the Victorian equivalent of paparazzi from taking unauthorized photographs. Her marriage was initially happy but Sisi soon became disenchanted with her husband who she had very little in common with. She loved poetry and he was a stickler for detail. But they tolerated each other and he understood that she needed to escape periodically from the Viennese court. Her great passion was hunting and in 1875 she came to England to go foxhunting with the Quorn at the invitation of Earl Spencer. Spencer assigned Bay Middleton, a young cavalry officer and famously the best rider in England to be her pilot in the field. The Gossip of the time was that they were having an affair. They hunted together for five years. When Bay was killed in a hunting accident in 1892, the medallion that Sisi gave him was found in his pocket
The structure of this novel – giving almost equal page space to Elizabeth, Middleton, and Charlotte, rather than just focussing on the royal figure – makes for an interesting balance. Why did you choose to structure your novel in this way?
I started off writing about Sisi, but I found myself feeling rather restricted by that. The novel wasn’t really working for me to be honest until I started writing Charlotte’s character. I needed to have someone in the book who was independent. The moment I fixed on Charlotte and gave her an interest in photography, the whole book started coming together.
Horses and the activities that surround them (hunting, racing) are predominant themes in The Fortune Hunter. Can you talk about the social importance of the hunt in England at the time?
Hunting was the extreme sport of the nineteenth century. It was a way for royalty and aristocracy to let off steam and escape the formality of their lives. There were hunts all over the country each one led by a Master of Fox Hounds, but the most prestigious ones were in Leicestershire and Rutland, the so called Golden Triangle of the Quorn, the Pytchley and the Middleton. Unusually hunting was a pastime where men and women were on equal terms, although the women of course, had to ride side saddle. Wearing a close fitting riding habit was probably the best chance that many women got to display their figures, and it is clear from the literature of the time that hunting at the time was about the thrill of chase in every sense.
There’s a page in the novel where Caspar says something to the effect of “There are worse crimes than taking photographs of royalty without their knowledge.” There is also Elizabeth’s desire to travel (impossibly) “incognito.” This seems to draw a strong parallel to the ceaseless media scrutiny and paparazzi that current royals (and celebrities) face today—and certainly similar to what Princess Diana endured not long ago. Could you elaborate on these comparisons, and how they inspired you throughout the writing process?
As I was writing the book, I was very conscious of the parallels between Sisi’s life and that of Princess Diana. Sisi’s life turned out to have ghostly similarities to that of the future Princess of Wales. When Sisi came to England to hunt in the 1970s, she became friends with Earl Spencer, and at Althrop there is a bronze statue of Sisi riding to hounds. Althorp, of course, was the childhood home of Diana Spencer. I wonder how much Diana knew about the Empress. Diana’s wedding dress is a modern version of the dress that Sisi wears in the Winterhalter portrait. Both women, who married men they hardly knew and who didn’t understand them, were famously glamorous and unhappy. And both women both used and were ultimately destroyed by their love affair with fame.
Sisi used her image to great effect, she became talked about as the ‘most beautiful woman in Europe’ but that of course is a curse as well as blessing. Like the wicked stepmother in Snow White, Sisi dreaded the moment when another younger more beautiful woman would replace her. Hence her insane beauty treatments, she used to cover her face in raw veal every night, and the lengths she would go to conceal herself from the eyes of the public in later life. She always travelled incognito as Countess Hohenembs, although it was a completely ineffectual disguise. In 1898, she was travelling in Switzerland when she fatally stabbed by an Italian anarchist who had no difficulty in discovering her true identity.
In addition to The Fortune Hunter, you’re the author of The American Heiress, which takes place in the late nineteenth century. What drew you to writing historical fiction?
I like the challenge of making the past come alive. I grew up reading the great nineteenth century novels so when I started to write it felt natural to set the books in the Victorian era. I would like one day to write a novel set in the present but as my next book is in Queen Victoria’s court that isn’t going to happen just yet.
*Special thanks to Staci at St. Martin for her help in today’s post!
Happy Reading and Bookishly Yours,
Book Talk with R & T